It’s been nearly 15 years since Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church gallivanted through the Santa Yvez Valley in “Sideways” — a film that helped put this under-appreciated California wine region on the oenophile’s map. Yet ask anyone today what destination comes to mind upon hearing the words “California” and “wine,” and the response is still almost guaranteed: “Napa Valley.”
Well, it’s time to really pay attention to the Central Coast, a region that spans roughly 250 miles, from Santa Barbara up to Monterey Bay, including the Santa Ynez Valley and San Luis Obispo County, among other regions. It has been producing good wine quietly for decades, with 27 approved American Viticultural Areas here (compared to Napa’s 16), and 90,300 acres are planted with wine grapes (double Napa’s 45,000). According to Danielle Laudon, the director of marketing at Visit Santa Ynez Valley, “Winemakers are not just specializing in Pinot Noir here. They’re crafting Sauvignon Blanc and cabs from the Happy Canyon AVA; cool climate syrahs from Los Alamos Valley; pinot noirs, Viogniers, and Chardonnays from Santa Rita Hills. The list goes on.”But wine is just one thing. Sheer natural beauty, stunning new hotels, emerging craft beer and cider scenes, small-town vibes, expansive horse ranches, and close proximity to Los Angeles are equal draws.
Now big-city transplants are catalyzing the area’s evolution. According to Laudon, people visit, fall in love, relocate, and set up new businesses, improving such places as Paso Robles, Atascadero, or the Santa Ynez Valley hubs of Ballard and Los Olivos for future travelers. Once enough has bubbled up, towns can begin marketing their local charms — as Visit Santa Ynez Valley started to do in 2014.
Ultimately, what makes the Central Coast great is that it isn’t Napa — which means that, despite an influx of media attention, you can still have it all to yourself. And the feeling you get when you visit a place that has largely remained untouched by commercialism and still seems undiscovered: pure magic.
Here are the cities and towns to string into your next California road trip — including what makes them special and why they’re buzzing now.
What makes it special: This laid-back weekend playground for Angelenos (people like Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez have houses here) has beautiful beaches, hotel hideaways you’ll never want to leave, and walkable streets lined with Spanish Colonial-style buildings.
What makes it hot: The Funk Zone — the city’s artsy, industrial neighborhood — started gaining traction a few years ago, as its streets became lined with wine bars and tasting rooms. Now it’s getting its first luxury hotel in the 121-room Hotel Californian. On opening later this summer, it’ll have the biggest guest rooms in town, all decked out in custom-designed Moroccan tile, Egyptian cobra-shaped wall sconces, and $4,000 shower heads. A stunning spa (with a straight-out-of-Santorini lounge area and a hand-painted domed ceiling) makes it more urban resort than hotel; so does the oversized roof deck overlooking the Pacific and the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Don’t overlook Santa Barbara’s family-friendly clout, either: At the just-opened Museum of Exploration + Innovation, you can try your hand at 3D printing, launch an air rocket, or build a mini race car.
Ballard and Los Olivos
What makes them special: About 35 miles north of Santa Barbara on Highway 154, Ballard (population 467) is one of those adorable blink-and-you’ll-miss-it places, complete with a little red schoolhouse that was founded in 1882. Just a seven-minute drive away — past rows of neatly planted grapes and an organic lavender farm — you’ll find Los Olivos, where it’s easy to spend a day sipping fruity cabs at the Firestone Vineyard tasting room or browsing locally made ceramics at Gallery Los Olivos.
What makes them hot: Ballard’s intimate, 15-room Ballard Inn is no longer your grandmother’s B&B, thanks to a smart refresh that swapped heavy, old-fashioned floral quilts for crisp, monochromatic linens. Its white-tablecloth restaurant has also been reborn: at the Gathering Table, creative, globally inspired sharing plates such as lamb lollipops with Indonesian rice are served around a long, communal farmhouse table.
Food is also the latest reason to visit Los Olivos. After years at Big Sur’s acclaimed Post Ranch Inn, chef John Cox is now at Bear and Star, a hyper-local, vegetable-focused restaurant inside the family-run Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. (It’s owned by actor Fess Parker of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone fame.) When Cox talks “farm to table,” it’s not just marketing bluster: the entire menu revolves around heirloom fruits, chickens, quail, and pigs that are all grown and raised on the Parker family’s 714-acre cattle ranch nearby.
San Luis Obispo
What makes it special: Thanks to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo — 60 miles north of Los Olivos — is your quintessential college town, with one fair-trade coffee shop after the next. Favorites include BlackHorse Espresso & Bakery, Kreuzberg (owned by two Cal Poly grads), Scout Coffee Co., and Linnaea’s, popular for its live music and vanilla chai lattes. The live music scene is hard to miss, partly thanks to Can Poly’s vibrant performing arts center.
What makes it hot: SLO has become one of California’s great, unsung culinary destinations, bolstered by talented, homegrown restaurateurs. Among a string of exciting openings downtown is the casual Mint + Craft Café and Mercantile — head here for open-faced egg sandwiches with house-cured wild salmon, or build your own cheese board to-go for a picnic lunch.
Right next door, an offshoot of Paso Robles’s beloved Thomas Hill Organics is as fiercely loyal to local producers as the original, sourcing organic meat, seafood, vegetables, and even bread from its neighbors; get the THO Burger with Cambozola cheese. Finally, there’s Libertine Brewing Co., with 76 taps for wine, kombucha, cold-brew coffee, and (of course) beer — including its own barrel-aged wild ales. On the booze-infused menu: elk sausage that’s been marinated in IPA, saison-washed cow’s milk cheese, and a lamb shank braised in Imperial Stout.
Atascadero & Paso Robles
What makes them special: Beyond Los Padres National Forest and midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, you’ll find Atascadero. Originally planned in 1913 as a utopian colony by the publisher E.G. Lewis, it’s a haven for hikers and mountain bikers, with two expansive parks and plenty of trails. A 14-mile shot up the 101 is Paso Robles, the land of undulating hills, huge oak trees, and tiny wineries. Here, a visit to a vineyard still includes face-to-face time with the winemaker. (Maybe not for long).
What makes them hot: Paso Robles already had wine chops: see such classics as Saxum Vineyards, Linne Calodo, and Tablas Creek Vineyard, co-owned by a family in the Rhône Valley. Now it’s focusing on everything else. In Tin City, a warehouse district brimming with tasting rooms, you’ll find Tin City Cider, a joint venture among three winemakers using French oak, Acacia, and stainless steel barrels for nine-apple blends.
From there, head to downtown Paso Robles, where festival favorite Toro Creek Brewing Co. has put down permanent roots. It’s run by three local brothers who grow organic barley and hops on the family farm to use in their saison, red ale, session IPA, and oatmeal stout. Its biggest competition? Pint-sized Silva Brewing, the latest project by Green Flash Brewing Co.’s storied brewmaster, Chuck Silva. It’s the perfect spot to fill up a growler, pick up some bottles, or try one of the 10 beers on tap.
Don’t leave without swinging by Atascadero’s first microbrewery, Tent City Beer Co. It’s gotten praise for its strong, hoppy Imperial Red, but the low-key spot serves five other proprietary brews, along with a rotating cast of rare, fermented finds. It’s a cicerone’s heaven.